Recently I have received not a lot, but an unusual amount of emails and phone calls from people asking me how they can become a mindfulness teacher.
I admit, I have been surprised by this since I do not think of myself as a mindfulness teacher. A part of me feels flattered that people are seeking out this kind of guidance from me but another part of me feels perplexed. Asking me how to become a mindfulness teacher is like asking an abstract painter to explain how she or he made that strange, abstract painting. It is not an easy thing to do.
My first inclination is to respond to people by saying, “I really don’t know” or “Read a lot of books on mindfulness and then apply what you learn.” But I recognize that this knee jerk reaction is a kind of unwillingness to talk about how I think a person becomes a mindfulness teacher (although reading a lot of books is important).
I never set my life’s course in the direction of becoming a mindfulness teacher. It is not something that I ever thought possible for me. I have always approached mindfulness in an effort to help myself more skillfully deal with the intense anxiety, depression and anger that I have struggled with much of my life.
Fifteen or so years ago while I was meditating in my small apartment in Oakland, I did have a vision of myself as an older man, sitting in the lotus position with a group of other people also seated in lotus position. We were all sitting in a circle practicing meditation and it kind of seemed like I was the teacher but I was not sure. I remember thinking that it would be nice to be able to be a meditation teacher but I had no idea how that kind of thing could ever happen since at the time I was consuming high doses of paxil, beer and marijuana to get through my anxious days.
Fifteen or so years later and people are asking me how to be a mindfulness teacher. It does feel strange. I do think, “Who, me?” But let me tell you how I think this sort of thing happened.
Professional Development Mindfulness Seminars, Mindfulness Certification Programs, Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Programs and other mindfulness courses that you can take are all helpful in developing your understanding of the basic principles and application of mindfulness practice. They are almost always a necessary first step to install in your brain a better functioning operating system than the damaged one you have kept running all this time. But finishing one of these mindfulness programs is really just the very beginning and far, far, far, far, far, far, far, far from the end of your mindfulness education.
How you then proceed to deal with your daily suffering is the much more important part of your education.
Are you aware of your mortality right now? Are you aware that this next breath could really be your very last? If not and you want to be a mindfulness teacher you might want to work on this. The continual awareness of your own mortality is one of the most important understandings you will need to have in order to be an effective mindfulness teacher.
Why? Because when you are really aware of the impermanence that underlies every single aspect of our lives, it allows you to place a much greater value on letting things go and living as fully as possible in this moment. This moment will mean more to you than anything else.
The reason why most of us are not present is because we have forgotten that we are going to die. We are operating under the false assumption that life goes on forever. As a result we refuse to slow down. We take ourselves very seriously.
The moment you become more aware of your own mortality, the present moment automatically takes on a much greater value. You are not as easily caught up in emotions and thoughts about the future and past. You are not as easily seduced by judgemental thoughts of yourself and others. It becomes much easier to accept things as they are, let them go, have some compassion and live more fully in this moment.
Are you noticing that you are breathing in or out right now?
A mindfulness teacher without a deep and personal understanding of the importance of this breath, of living life from moment to moment, aware of but not attached to everything that is going on, is like a bird without wings. It just doesn’t make any sense. No certification program or class can provide you with this innate and immediate understanding of your own (and everyone else’s) unavoidable end. This is something you will have to come to on your own, through your own life experience. A mindfulness teacher ideally acquires this very real understanding and insight long before they find themselves in a hospital bed.
The present moment is not really a real thing. The moment you become aware of the present moment it is already the past. The future is continually becoming the past, so in a sense there is not really an exact present moment. I use the term present moment in the same way a religious person might use the term God. It is pointing to an experience of something that is never really right here. A mindfulness teacher knows that the present moment just means being aware of the experience you are having right now rather than being completely lost in thought.
Being aware of our present moment experience (sensations in the body, sounds, smells, tastes, breathing) rather than being caught in the web of the wandering mind, is the essence of mindfulness practice.
There are mindfulness teachers and practitioners who are very dialed in to their present moment experience almost all of the time. I have studied with teachers who could be called expert meditators and as a result are not that invested in their egos. When we talk about being caught up in the wandering mind (identified with thought after thought after thought) this just means a person is very identified with their ego. There are mindfulness teachers who have worked hard and thus are not very ego driven. As a result, they suffer much less than you and I.
But this is not the kind of mindfulness teacher I am. I suffer. I struggle. I am still identified with my ego. I kind of like my ego and don’t want to eradicate it. I am just like most of the other people I teach- trying to more successfully and skillfully manage my own physical and psychological afflictions through the practice of mindfulness.
I still deal with anxiety, anger and depression- sometimes a lot more often that I care to admit. But to be a mindfulness teacher I do think it is important to suffer and struggle with these very human things. It is important to humanize yourself by being open about your own personal struggles instead of trying to come of as a person who has all their shit together. People will see through this (hopefully).
Besides, what use is a mindfulness teacher to people who are really struggling with very human difficulties if they are not willing to honestly share how they use mindfulness to deal with their own personal struggles? This is the essence of being a mindfulness teacher. Show people how you do it and let them decide if they want to apply it or not.
I could be wrong, but a mindfulness teacher who has eradicated all anger, anxiety, depression, grief does not exist. This is why it is important not to hide behind credentials, certifications, status and degrees by pretending like you have eradicated suffering, because you will always know this is just not true. As a result you will feel like an imposter.
Be courageous. Talk about your shit. Talk about your struggles and about how you apply mindfulness to the problems in your own life.
When you are angry, depressed or freaking out take the time to apply the basic principles of mindfulness practice. Do this again and again. This will be the most important and never ending aspect of your mindfulness education. No matter how angry or sad or worried or afraid or angry or depressed you get, keep coming back to your awareness of the present moment. Notice that you are breathing in and out. Let it go. If you can do this successfully more often than not- this will be your greatest qualification as a mindfulness teacher.
If you notice that days or weeks go by where you forget to apply the basic principles of mindfulness practice becuase you are all caught up in frantic thoughts and emotions, this is normal. You are human. It is just important that at some point you remember to bring yourself back to the awareness of the present moment and let go of whatever crap you have been caught up in.
If you go away from the present moment a thousand times, what is important is that you bring yourself back into the present moment a thousand and one times.
Remember the importance of being fully alive in this moment rather than being caught up in worry, remorse or judgment. None of it is as important as you think. Let it go. Practice living your life from moment to moment rather than living in terms of tasks you need to accomplish and/or worry about. When you realize you have gotten caught up in thoughts and have been living your very precious and very mortal life from the neck up (lost in your head) bring yourself back to what is happening right now. Do this again and again and again……..
It is the degree to which you suffer and then apply the basic principles of mindfulness practice while being honest with others (and yourself) about your process, which will determine the degree to which you are effective as a mindfulness teacher.
“Life is what happens to you while you are making other plans.” –John Lennon.
There is a sentence in the novel The Bathroom by Jean-Philippe Tousaint where his protagonist says, “I am compromising the quietude of my abstract life for what?” This sentence resonated with me so deeply that I have had it posted above my desk for many years. All of us are continually compromising the quietude or calm of our lives for so many things. Many are probably doing it right now! Things such as relationships, money, jobs, status, things that other people do that we don’t like, things that we have to do but do not want to do, the state of the world, the state of our situation in the world and on and on. One word that is often used to describe what happens when we compromise our quietude is stress.
Chronic stress is mainly caused by a mind that wanders. Our brains are not well-tuned mental machinery as much as we might wrongly believe they are. Instead, they wander off into reactive territory at the slightest trigger. Most of us tend to be lost in random thoughts all day long, unfocused on whatever it is that we are doing as we are doing it. Some of you may have heard about the psychologists at Harvard who started the Track Your Happiness app. What they found was that a wandering (unfocused) brain was the cause of unhappiness. What people were thinking was the cause of their stress/unhappiness not what they were doing (even if what they were the most unpleasant situations or performing boring chores).
Make no mistake about it, chronic stress is the cause of more illnesses (mental and physical) and early deaths than anything else on planet earth. As science becomes more and more conclusive with regards to the serious effects of chronic stress on the human body and brain, we will have doctors prescribing meditation (relaxation-responses) in the same way that they currently prescribe medication. Chronic stress is no joke. It is not to be taken lightly and it is important to realize that it is almost always the result of a wandering brain that is not focused in the present moment. Chronic stress literally turns off the switch that illuminates our lives.
In scientific terms that switch that illuminates our lives is referred to as telomeres. Telomeres are the stretches of expendable DNA at the ends of chromosomes. Telomeres act like the stiff plastic sheaths that prevent the ends of shoelaces from fraying. Over the course of a lifetime, cells divide so many times that telomeres wear down to such an extent that the integrity of the genes carried by the chromosomes is threatened. To protect our bodies when undergoing various stresses, the cells stop dividing and gradually undergo apoptosis, otherwise known as cell suicide. Telomere length is thus an effective measure of a cell’s biological age, and people with shorter telomeres seem to have a lower life expectancy.
There is currently solid evidence that chronic stress shortens telomere length and accelerates everything that comes along with the aging process. Conversely, there is also solid evidence which shows that mindfulness meditation (or any kind of daily relaxation response) rebuilds telomeres and combats the effects of aging at the cellular level by promoting the activity of a gene that makes an enzyme called telomerase. By ramping up the activity of telomerase, evidence suggests that we can slow down cellular aging. Still more research and evidence is needed, but once this happens (which, I think it certainly will within the next decade) doctors will be recommending meditation as a way to keep the Grim Reaper at bay.
The single reason why mindfulness techniques (or anything that promotes a relaxation response) are so effective at combating the negative physiological and psychological effects of stress is because it interrupts the train of our regular thoughts. Mindfulness tempers the stress response in our bodies by breaking the chain of everyday thinking (the wandering mind) and aligning the mind with what is happening in the present moment. As a result of being able to remain more present and focused with whatever we are doing as we do it, the adverse clinical effects of stress are counteracted and possibly we can end up saving our own lives.
Some things are far beyond our control. No matter how hard we try, we just can’t see them coming. Today, I was officially inaugurated in as The Mindfulness Guy. Not by choice. Not by want. Just by fate. Had no idea that it was going to happen. I just went to the market to get a few things for dinner.
I never set out to be The Mindfulness Guy. I have set out to be many things in my life (professional tennis player, fiction writer, abstract painter, successful blogger) but everything that I have set out to become on my own terms, has failed. The things that I did not set out to become, that I became as a result of necessity, destiny or practicality (security) seem to be the things at which I succeed.
I live in a town but I prefer to call it a city. The reason why I prefer to call it a city is because no one waves here. People keep to themselves. In a town, it seems like strangers, acquaintances and friends are always waving back and forth at each other. Not here. I work as a mindfulness psychotherapist. I lead mindfulness groups. I work with individuals, couples and families in private practice where I teach them mindfulness skills. This is what I do in the city where I live.
I’m not a Buddhist. I’m not spiritual or religious. I am not very interested in matters pertaining to psychology or the neurobiological aspects of brain functioning (like most mindfulness teachers are). I have no desire to have a following (like most mindfulness teachers do). I try to work as little as possible (most mindfulness teachers seem to work all the time). I’m just a guy who enjoys practicing mindfulness and helping others to live less stress filled lives.
For at least a decade I had debilitating anxiety and panic attacks. I was depressed and angry most of the time. I was an alcoholic and habitual marijuana user. There were few things that I enjoyed more than numbing my unruly brain with substances. I was introduced to a few people who were serious mindfulness practitioners, started practicing with them regularly and in time the panic attacks, intense anxiety, depression and uncontrollable anger went away. Despite my skepticism, I was impressed that mindfulness actually worked for me. So I have stuck with it.
By no real effort of my own, it just so happens that I am able to teach others what I was taught. People can take it or leave it. This is as far as I go with my work as a mindfulness teacher. I don’t read much about mindfulness. I don’t go to lectures about mindfulness. I do not watch videos about mindfulness. When speaking with others I don’t refer to myself as a mindfulness teacher or psychotherapist and I prefer not to talk about mindfulness when I am not working. I just practice mindfulness because it helps me. This is why I was shocked when I was in the market looking for maple syrup (and wondering if I should buy molasses instead) and heard some lady shout: “Hey mindfulness guy, help us!”
At first I thought, “Who’s the mindfulness guy?” I looked around the market to see if I could catch a glimpse of my competition and suddenly noticed that a lady, dressed in the market’s uniform, was kneeling down above a body that was wiggling all over the floor. The strange thing was that this lady was looking directly at me.
“Hey mindfulness guy, come here please!!,” she yelled in my direction. “Who me?” I said pointing at my chest. I do not know why I was so surprised at being the one who was being summoned, but I was. “Yes, please come here NOW!” I quickly grabbed a random maple syrup off the shelf, put it in my basket and then walked over towards where the woman was kneeling down. A large group of people, all with shopping baskets hanging from their hands, gathered around the woman wiggling around on her back, on the floor. The kneeling woman who called for me was the store manager and I recognized her because she had come to a few of my mindfulness groups. She told me that the person wiggling around on the floor was having a panic attack. She asked me to use mindfulness to help settle the person down. This was a very unusual situation for me to be in.
I admit, I was slightly annoyed. When I am out in public I do not like to be bothered. I prefer to just go out, do my thing, maintain some degree of anonymity and then return home. I am not the type of person who says hello to people I recognize and then engage in brief conversation. I would rather avoid this. Why I am this way I do not know. One of my previous therapists called it anti-social behavior disorder after I had walked past her on the street one day and pretended not to see her. She knew I did. I do not see the need to label this behavior “anti-social,” I think it is just a fundamental aspect of being an introvert.
But now I had to come out of my self-created shell. I had to act like an extrovert and make conversation with a woman who was wiggling around on the floor in a state of extreme panic. The woman looked like she was in her mid-forties and I noticed that her hair was dyed purple and she had a nose ring. She was wearing a Bernie Sanders For President t-shirt and was sweating profusely, shaking, hyperventilating, stomping her feet down onto the ground and shouting out, “I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!”
I have certainly been in this similar panicked situation myself, but never on the floor of a crowded supermarket (thankfully). I noticed that Huey Lewis And The News was playing on the store speakers and I wished someone would turn it off. “This man can help you, he’s the mindfulness guy,” the store manager said to the woman wiggling and sweating and hyperventilating all over the ground. The Mindfulness Guy? Really? Did you have to introduce me to her in this way?, I thought to myself. But there was no time for my ego right now. I had to act. I had to figure out how to teach mindfulness to someone who was in the middle of a panic attack on a supermarket floor. I decided to do a body scan.
“Oh god, oh god, I can’t breathe!,” she kept saying. “I can’t breathe!, I can’t breathe!” “Ok, ok. Everything is going to be all right. You are going to be fine, I promise you. I just need you to really try to notice the sensations that are present in your feet. Just become aware of the sensations in your feet,” I told her as I rested my hand gently on her chest. “I can’t breathe! I cant breathe!,” she kept yelling out. “Please, just pay attention to your feet. Notice the sensations in the soles of your feet. Can you feel tingling sensations? Are your feet warm or cold? Can you feel pulsations in your feet?” I asked. “I can’t fucking breathe and you want me to feel my feet!?” the lady shouted out at me. Ok, this is not working, I thought to myself.
She continued to wiggle, shake, sweat and hyperventilate. I decided to do some basic mindfulness breathing with her. “Ok, I want you to just focus on your breathing moving in and out through your nose. Just follow your breathing as it moves in and out through your nose. Don’t try to control your breathing, just let it move in through your nose and then back out again. Just follow the breath with your awareness.” As I told her this I was modeling how to do it for her and occasionally she would look at me and watch but then she suddenly said, “I can’t breathe you son of a bitch and you want me to follow my breathing! Help me! Oh god help me! I can’t breathe! I don’t want to die! Get me a doctor not this fucking mindfulness lunatic!” I couldn’t believe that this woman was shouting this at me. I was only trying to help. It was embarrassing but I had to remain calm. I could not take her insults personally. I needed to act fast before everything was lost.
I noticed that there was a large stack of Alhambra bottled waters by my side. The water was on sale. A few times in the distant past I had used the splashing cold water on your face method to calm myself down from a panic attack. I quickly grabbed a bottled water from the stack, which caused the entire stack to come falling down on to the ground. Bottled waters bouncing around everywhere. But this was a crisis situation and in a crisis no one cares much about maintaining how things look. You just need to do what you got to in order to get control of a situation. So I opened the bottled water and poured it out all over the panicked woman’s chest and face.
I could hear gasps of shock from the crowd that had gathered around as I emptied the water bottle onto the woman. They could not believe what I was doing. I knew that if this did not work I was doomed. I would be killed in a supermarket by an angry crowd who would use their shopping baskets to clobber me.
This is why I was so relieved when I noticed the woman suddenly stopped wiggling. She sat right up, looked directly at me and said, “What the fuck?! What did you do that for?!” She used her hands and shirt to wipe the water off her face. She shook out water from her drenched hair. “You son of a bitch! What did you pour water all over me for?!” The woman was so angry that she stood right up off the floor, like suddenly she had gotten all of her muscle back. I stood up along with her not sure what to do next. I was concerned that the woman would attack me since she looked enraged. All I could think to say to her was, “Can you at least breathe ok now?” And then there was a silence. All I could hear was the terrible music playing on the store speakers.
The woman’s face immediately changed. She looked around for a moment as if she was trying to figure something out. I stood there waiting for whatever was going to happen next. This is a big part of my mindfulness practice, the practice of just being comfortable with uncertainty and just allowing things to unfold naturally while keeping myself present with what is. I focused on my breathing as I noticed that the woman was realizing that her panic had gone away. Her angry face suddenly turned into a happier face and then everything turned upside down. This complete stranger threw her arms around me and gave me a very constricting hug. Now I could not breathe but all I could do was stay present with the discomfort and put my arms around her. She kept saying, ”Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you so much. You are truly the mindfulness guy. You saved my life!” I could feel her tears on my neck and thought to myself, oh shit.
The hug lasted a lot longer than I would have liked but it stopped right when the crowd suddenly started clapping. The woman let go of me, stepped backwards towards the crowd and joined them in giving me a standing ovation. I noticed some people were crying. And then something really unexpected happened. The woman, the store manager and the large crowd standing around all began chanting: ”Mindfulness Guy!!, Mindfulness Guy!!, Mindfulness Guy!!, Mindfulness Guy!!” They repeated this over and over again and I thought it would never end. I wished they would stop but I just stood there thanking them because I did not know what else to do. It felt humiliating to be the center of attention in this way but I followed my breathing, stayed aware of sensations in my body and accepted what is.
The store manager walked up and hugged me and then kissed me on the cheek. She said, “Thank you so much! I need to come to more of your mindfulness groups. Please let me know when you check out. I want to give you a 50% discount.” Thankfully the crowd gradually dispersed but suddenly there was a long line of people, still holding their shopping baskets in their hands, and now wanting to shake my hand and get a business card from me. Business had been slow lately and I thought that this could be a good way to get some new customers. I felt excited about the prospect of my business picking up again but when I reached into my pocket to grab my wallet (within which I kept my business cards) I realized I had forgotten my wallet at home. This does not look good, was the thought I had. I picked a bottled water up off the ground and drank it down.
The real question for any human being who is struggling or suffering is, “How can you change the here and now rather than needing to get someplace else in order to feel better?” When we practice mindfulness techniques we are engaging in a strategy of mental freedom: the transformation of the negative, habitual and familiar ways of being into more calm, content and self-regulating ways of living.
The main point of mindfulness meditation is to gradually learn how to identify your own habitual, negative, self-destructive thought patterns and then to be able to bring yourself out of them. You are learning how to become aware of when you are lost in habitual thought and then you are learning how to shorten the duration of these negative thought patterns by focusing your attention on the present moment and then letting the thoughts go.
When I teach people this simple technique the most common answer I hear is, “It is so obvious and simple but so hard to remember to do!” It is hard because we are so easily absorbed into our negative ways of thinking. These ways of thinking are familiar and habitual. They are learned when we are kids and most of us reinforce them for our entire lives. Even though these negative thought processes cause us so much pain and suffering, we still refuse to let them go.
It is through the continual practice of mindfulness meditation that we gradually learn that we do have a choice, we can chose to let negative thoughts go. Doing this on a daily basis can radically improve the quality of your life. It really is that simple but you have to be willing to practice it. No one can do it for you and I guess this is what ultimatly makes it hard.
I used to be so deeply identified with negative, habitual thinking. It was never ending. I was angry most of the time, always stressed out and worried about everything. I had a severe anxiety disorder, which landed me in more emergency rooms than I want to admit. I was always angry at my parents and even after years of therapy I could not get the angry thoughts out of my head. (It did not help that they were continually behaving in ways that upset me.) The only temporary “solution” that I found that worked was Paxil and booze. But once the booze wore off and the Paxil kicked back in, I felt sedated most of the time with a low level feeling of anxiety, impending doom and anger just waiting to break through the surface. It was a really unpleasant cycle that I never imagined I would come out of. Fifteen years later and lots of time spent practicing mindfulness meditation- and the cycle has ended only because I am now able to stop it before it gets started.
Through the practice of mindfulness mediation I have cultivated the ability to be aware of when I start to become identified with negative, habitual thinking and 95% of the time I am able to let these thoughts go and return my focus to a more peaceful and satisfied present moment awareness. What a remarkable difference this has made in my overall quality of life! No longer lost in the same, repetitive, negative thought patterns that held me hostage for so many years.
The same old habitual, negative thought processes are still there. I presume they will always be there more or less. It is how my brain developed. But by noticing when I begin to become identified with the negative, habitual thoughts and then by letting them go, I am continually able to change my here and now experience. Where once I would be angry or anxious for hours, days or weeks I am now able to feel calm and at ease in under five minutes (most of the time). I am able to transform my present moment experience so that I experience more well-being and contentment and be much, much less caught up in the drama that once filled my entire life.
This is how we radically improve the quality of our lives right now. It is a continual practice of being aware of and then letting habitual, negative thoughts go. I have trained as a psychotherapist, been through years of my own psychotherapy and psychoanalysis, read immense amounts of self help books. I have been in and out of doctor’s offices and endlessly searched for answers and it is only this simple mindfulness technique that I have found really works when properly applied. It is all we need to do. We just have to be willing to do it. Again and again and again. Day in and day out.
Letting the negative, habitual thoughts go by bring your attention back to right now. What one meditation teacher I studied with calls, “Hearing the birds chirping in the trees rather than being lost in the thoughts whirling around in your tired mind.”
She was angry for years at her husband for how he treated her. The loss of his father caused him to remain in deep grief for years. The job that he hated but had to work at caused him so much daily rage and negativity. She was so angry at the world. His parents really upset him.
From a mindfulness perspective the problem is not the husband, the deceased father, the unpleasant job, the world, the parents. It is not the things outside of ourselves that cause us unhappiness and suffering. The real cause of suffering is the anger, the grief, the rage, the negativity that we are so identified with. When we are focusing all of our attention outside of ourselves, when we believe that the reasons for our suffering are because of the “things out there,” we are like someone who is bleeding to death and not addressing the wound. We have become the cause of our own suffering.
Mindfulness is an emotional, behavioral and mental state of mind. Like all other mental states (anger, anxiety, joy, depression, excitement, dread, rage, etc..), the mindful state arises and passes away depending upon the kind of thoughts and feelings a person becomes identified with. The more negative the thoughts and feelings are, the more difficult it becomes to maintain a mindful mental state.
The Zen teacher and writer Shunryu Suzuki, in his classic book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind writes:
Nothing comes from outside your mind. Usually we think of our mind as receiving impressions and experiences from outside, but that is not the true understanding of our mind. The true understanding is that the mind includes everything; when you think something comes from outside it means only that something appears in your mind. Nothing outside yourself can cause any trouble. You yourself make the waves in your mind. If you leave your mind as it is, it will become calm. This mind is called big mind.
In mindfulness practice, awareness is the same as what is referred to as “big mind” in Zen practice. Through focusing our attention on the present moment (breathing, sensation, sounds, thoughts- the here and right now) we are cultivating a big mind. When we become aware and accepting of what is happening within us right now, we begin to cultivate a mindful state.
To have a good day today, does not imply that we feel happy and relaxed. No, quite the opposite is true. Happiness just means the presence of positive thoughts and feelings. It is a transitory emotional state just like all other emotional states. Having a good day today has nothing to do with feeling happy or free of anxiety. It means that we are able to become aware of and fully accept whatever is happening within us right now. We stop fighting. We stop resisting. We stop beating ourselves up. We stop wanting things to change or be different than what they are right now. We notice when we are judging others and let it be. As a result of doing this we drop into our lives exactly as they are right now. We become present with what is. We are taking responsibility for the quality of our lives right now. Things become more manageable. We feel a greater degree of what it means to be free.
Acceptance is the opposite of attachment. When we are attached to our anger, our pain, our hurt, our stress, our anxiety, our unhappiness, our greed, our indignation- we are causing our own suffering. When we are able to become aware of the emotional and mental states that are present in us right now and accept them as they are- we create a “big mind,” a mindful mental state. A mindful state is a peaceful state. Even someone who is dying right now, may not feel happy, but they can choose to be in a very peaceful state.
Using acceptance and awareness to return to this mindful mental state when we recognize that we are not fully accepting our lives as they are (“what is”), when we are resisting, wanting things to be different, blaming or fighting back- is how we can stop suffering and have a good day today. Right now. Ultimately, the ball is in our court from moment to moment to moment.
“You are being mindless, man.”
“What?! Me?” I replied since I was not used to someone saying this to me.
“Yes, you are being mindless. Wake up man, come on.”
I was talking about something in the past. Something I did not like. I was going on and on, probably filled with judgment and vitriol. Then I dropped the cup of tea I was drinking and that is when he said it.
You are being mindless.
I was pissed at first. I did not like what I was feeling. I was at war with my experience.
A minute or so passed, I don’t know how long exactly.
Once I accepted where I was at, I thought to myself, “Oh yeah, I am not being present at all.”
I think that I have my head in the clouds a lot. More than I would like to admit. Even though I confess to feeling like I have this mindfulness stuff down, I often do not. Mindfulness seems to be as fleeting as any other muscle if not regularly used. Before you know it, your ability to be present is gone. Atrophied. Even though you think you are present you are not. You, like everyone else, are lost in thought. Instead you are planning, judging, comparing, interpreting, condemning, worrying, dreaming, trying to figure things out. You are anywhere and everywhere except right here. At least this is often true for me.
Just try it now. Let go of thinking for a minute. Just let it go. Come out of the sticky web. The cave. The illusion of control. Just feel your feet on the ground. Become aware of your breathing. Notice what you are hearing. Just let that voice in your head go for one minute. Just one minute. Breathe in and breathe out. Get a sense of how different it feels to be present. Know that it is within this space that so many of your difficulties can be solved.
When we are present, we are aware of details. We are aware of how the details are always changing. The faces we see, the sky above our heads, the sounds we hear, our problems, the sensations in our bodies, the light and colors- all of it in a continual state of flux. When we are mindful we are aware of the changes that are always going on around us. We see them as they happen. When we are mindless, we are not aware of these changes. We barley notice them at all and are often reactive to the changes when we do notice them. This is what is meant by the idea that we are often being led around by forces outside and inside our ourselves. When we are unaware of the changes that are always going on within and outside of ourselves we become reactive to them. We are being led like prisoners. When we become mindful, we stop the cycle of being led around and come into a place of awareness. We are aware of what is going on in and around ourselves. It is difficult to be reactive when we are in this space. Instead we mindfully respond to whatever arises in the moment.
But still my head is often in the clouds. I am often being led around. Just yesterday I was holding an electronic gadget in my hands and thinking about something that I wanted to write. I dropped the gadget. Broke it. This happens with my iPhone a lot. I drop it because I am thinking about something else. I remember once when my friend got a new iPhone I asked him if he planned to get a protective cover for it. He said no. He said that would defeat the purpose because his beloved iPhone was his opportunity to practice mindfulness. To stay continual present with the sensation of the object in his hand, instead of lost in the thoughts in his head.
I bump my head into things. Sometimes I break dishes when I am washing them. I trip when on walks. Sometimes I will catch myself driving and realize that I was not aware of my hands on the steering wheel, my body in the seat, my foot against the pedal. I knock my favorite watch into things- walls, car doors. All of this is obviously because I am being led around. My head is in the clouds and I am caught up in some kind of frenetic thought process. dreaming, thinking about what I am going to do next. It is my mind. The mind that I was born with. This is what it does. Even after twenty plus years of mindfully trying to get it under control.
“You are being mindless.” I was thinking about what he said as I cleaned up the tea. I was perturbed with myself. Bothered. Why cant I be more mindful? I teach this stuff, come on Randall! All these judgmental and critical thoughts going through my head, directed right at myself. How embarrassing.
And then I just stopped. I took a deep breathe. I let it go. I just stopped. Focused my attention on my breathing. Became aware of the sounds that I was hearing, my feet on the ground. The irritation in my chest. I redirected my attention away from my thoughts. I came back to where I was at. It was like I had pushed a refresh button within myself. I smiled a bit and said thank you as the server finished cleaning up my mess.
I let it go and came back to the present moment. It felt like returning somewhere that I was happy to be.
My friend smiled back at me and said, “Your back. Good. Should we go walk?”
I had a meditation teacher once who would always say, “If you go away from the breath a thousand times, bring yourself back to the breath a thousand and one times.”
Let it go. Come back to the breath.